Oliver Steiner, Violinist

Performing Under Pressure

by Oliver Steiner

The more deeply we care about how our performance goes, the more vulnerable it may be to the pressure of performance. If one performs the Mendelssohn Concerto for his dog (I often do) it goes splendidly. The next day the same performance, before a live audience or an audition committee, may be vulnerable to the pressure of the occasion. How ironic. What can we do about it?

A thorough answer to this question could fill a book. Here we will try to outline some key principles. The first principle, in my view, is: It's not about your feelings, it's about your actions. Attempting to remove the vulnerability by trying to remove the nervousness is of very limited benefit. It's like saying to someone: "Don't think of the color blue." What's the first thing he will think of? Yet, this is often the only approach employed. You are not responsible for feeling good while you play. You are responsible for playing beautifully. If you accept this, you have already made a step in the right direction. Nervousness can co-exist with well controlled, beautiful playing when the technique is based on appropriate actions.

Example 1: A violinist plays a D string note followed by an A string note on a down bow slur. There are two opposite ways this might be accomplished: 1.By contracting muscles to lurch the bow downward, from D string to A string. (Feels like swatting a fly on a table.) 2. By gently relaxing the muscles which would keep the bow on D string level, so gravity may gradually bring it to the A string. (Feels like falling asleep while playing on D string, so bow touches A string.) The second way is preferable for several reasons; amongst them: it is less vulnerable to nervousness. Learning it requires a bit of training. The appropriate action benefits the performance only when it is somewhat of a conditioned response. The violinist comes upon a string change to a more clockwise (higher pitched) string on a down-bow, and "automatically" relaxes the appropriate muscles, the right amount. He does the correct action not because he feels calm, but because he's knows his craft. He does so without the need to consciously select this action because, during his practice, he has trained himself to react this way. This then defines a second principle: The appropriate action must be practiced to the level of a conditioned response.

Example 2: The scene is backstage, after I've played a recital. Someone says to me: "You're lucky, you don't get nervous when you play" I laugh. "What makes you think that?", I ask. "You look relaxed.", they say. The truth is: I stand straight and loose, then place the violin on my collar bone with a graceful movement - not because I feel marvelously confident and calm, but because I know how to do these simple movements. Anyone can do them regardless of how he feels. It's just a matter of realizing that one's actions are not at the mercy of one's feelings. (This state of mind is not unlike the mental process of a man who finds his co-worker attractive but doesn't flirt with her, because he's married!)

Example 3: The mother and the child: Now the scene shifts to a moment early in the recital. I'm feeling nervous but moving calmly. My shifting, for example, slows down a little as I approach the target note at the top of each shift. That my shift is not a desperate lurch is owing to the fact that I'm trained to shift that way. Then, after a while, (sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but after a while) I start to calm down. I actually feel more calm. This calming occurs like the calming of a child being rocked by his mother. In this case I'm both the mother and the child. The experiencing of my calm shifting movements, calm string changes and gentle holding of violin and bow has worked a calming effect on my state of mind. This is nice when it happens. It defines a third principle: Not only do the emotions affect a person's actions; one's actions affect his emotions.

Now for a fourth principle (a variation on the first principle): It's not about your feelings, it's about your actions, except that it's a little tiny bit about your feelings. The point is that one should be not at all dependent on feeling calm to play well, but since there are things one can do to influence one's feelings in a constructive way, it behooves us to learn them. Two exercises which I use (immediately prior to a performance) are: 1. The one minute bow - Draw four or five bows so slowly that each of them takes a full sixty seconds or more to get from one end to the other. Josef Gingold used to say; "It's a wonderful tranquilizer." 2. Counted breathing - Inhale for four counts; hold breath for two counts; exhale for four counts; hold breath for two counts. Repeat until calm. It works.

Breathes there a violinist who has not had a performance about which he said "...but it went so much better at home."? The crucial issue is not whether one has said this. What is crucial is how he responds to it. If his response is to attribute it to bad luck, he sets himself up for a performing life fraught with fear and risk. A better life habit is to respond with performance preparation which is geared to playing under pressure. Playing under pressure is not to be feared, it is merely the normal circumstance of performing.